In "Now You See Me," Jesse Eisenberg plays a cocky illusionist who teams up with three other magicians -- Woody Harrelson, Isla Fisher, and Dave Franco -- to become the Four Horsemen. They're soon pulling off amazing feats onstage and off, as they manage to rob a bank in Paris while they're performing in Vegas.
Eisenberg spoke to Moviefone about how playing a magician who's the best at what he does helped him with his real-life stage fright, how hard it was to make co-star Harrelson crack up, and the one magic trick he can do in real life.
Moviefone: What drew you to this story?
Eisenberg: I was doing a play in New York, "Asuncion," and I had a lot of stage fright and anxiety about performing in it. When I read the script, the character they wanted me to play was the most confident, almost arrogant, stage performer, and I thought, Oh, this will be a great opportunity to live out all of the things I was denying myself in the play. I got to perform on stage and feel great about it instead of feeling nervous about it, and so I fully embraced that part of this character. He loves performing more than anything and he thinks he's the best and entirely in control of the audience.
Did this role help your stage acting?
Yeah, I just finished my second play, "The Revisionist" with Vanessa Redgrave, and I was a little more confident doing it. I mean, incrementally, but moreso, nonetheless. I realized that you can choose to feel confident about it or not, but that's not necessarily related to how the show goes. You can feel excited all day about performing at night or you can feel miserable all day about it and the show might not be that different. Why ruin your days feeling miserable about something that can possibly go really well?
Do you no longer have stage fright?
A lot less so. I write these plays and it's very important for me to get them produced. The first play I did, I had to really push along so it's a battle in me of wanting to avoid doing it because it scares me -- wanting to get my plays out there and express myself. I'm getting a little more confident as I do each play.
You learned some sleight of hand tricks for the movie. How good are you now?
I'm better than I was before the movie started, but not good enough to do them in public. My character has been practicing since he was eight years old, so he's been working on the same tricks every single day, eight hours a day. To get as good as my character is, I would have had to start 20 years ago. I didn't get the script until last year, so that was impossible [laughs]
What kind of tricks can you do?
In the opening scene of the movie, my character's performing for a small group on the street corner in Chicago. He flips through a deck of cards and asks them to remember one card. The card he asks them to remember is the seven of diamonds. He actually planned that. He forced them to see that card, so I can do that, force people to see one card in a huge deck of cards.
Your character pulls off a lot of these stunts without being sure who's pulling the strings. It's kind of interesting that he doesn't know where it's all leading.
At the beginning, my character thinks of himself as being entirely in control, and then over the course of the movie, he starts to realize he's less in control than he originally thought. This is really frustrating and unnerving to him because he's extremely confident and doesn't want to share credit with other people. So it's irritating to him that someone else might be behind the stuff they're doing.
Are you saying he becomes a better person by the end of the movie?
No. [Laughs] No, probably a worse person.
You got to work with Woody Harrelson for the first time since "Zombieland." What was that like?
It's pretty great. We have a similar style of working. We like to come up with backstories for our character to the point where we're able to improvise in character. And we both really like improvisation and we both play off each other, since we have a similar sense of humor. I have a lot of respect for him because he really takes it seriously. He's a hardworking guy, which is kind of an obvious thing, but it's not.
What was something you improv'd for the movie?
I'm not sure what's in the final [cut], but in every scene, you do a few takes of the scripted scene and then the director lets us do other things within a scene; while the cameras are still rolling, we can say what we like. Woody's great because he's really creative. When we were doing "Zombieland," which was a more explicitly comedic movie, we would improvise for 10 minutes straight through and he would not laugh once. That's unique. Maybe that's a function of my lack of good jokes, but he's really focused and he's really talented.
Did he ever make you crack up?
Yes. Over the course of 10 minutes, I would laugh maybe four times and he would not laugh once. It's really hard to do because it's not about being humorless, because he has a great sense of humor. It's about being focused.